It is difficult to comprehend that bacteria can actually be good for us, yet this is precisely the case with probiotics. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that reside in our gut. In fact, you have more bacteria in your body than cells. For optimal human functioning, we must maintain a balance of a variety of strains of these favorable bacteria, as any imbalance allowed to flourish will lead to a whole host of problems, most prominently, digestive disorders.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Diseases, approximately 70 million Americans experience some kind of digestive disruption, at a cost of over $100 billion dollars a year in healthcare costs. This statistic is very plausible when we contemplate the many factors that contribute to the decline of beneficial bacteria. Some of the most common include: tap water, antibiotic use, poor diet, stress and prescription medications. Most of us have required an antibiotic in order to treat an infection that may pose a danger to our well-being, and we are very lucky to have them. Yet, antibiotics do not have the ability to differentiate between bacteria. Antibiotics simply flush the gut of all bacteria, both good and bad. Failure to reflorate the gut with good bacteria leaves us open to further infections, a weakened immune system prone to further illnesses and digestive disturbances. Surprisingly, the same goes for our tap water. Any and all water that has been treated with fluoride or chlorine will kill the good bacteria. Which leads us to the importance of diet.
It seems presumptive that a good diet leads to a healthy gut, but it is much deeper than that when we throw probiotics in to the mix. However, we must first understand the role of prebiotics. A good way to view prebiotics is to think of a garden. We begin by amending the soil with nutrients that help plants thrive. As those plants grow, we feed them healthy fertilizers to promote robust growth. Prebiotics do just this, they consist of soluble fibers that feed the good bacteria so that they can proliferate and flourish. When we consume a diet devoid of nutrient-rich food we deprive our gut of the beneficial flora it needs to maintain health.
At one point in time, humans regularly consumed foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics. We consumed prebiotics composed of soluble fiber from raw foods such as garlic, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus and under-ripe bananas—to name just a few. Before refrigeration, fermentation was a necessary component of food preservation that created a product full of probiotics. We peer through a window deep into our past when pondering some of the most common fermented, probiotic-rich foods. Kefir, around for over 3,000 years, originated in Russia and Turkey where it translates to “feeling good.” Kombucha is believed to have originated in 212 B.C. near China and Japan. There’s also sauerkraut from Germany, Kimchi from Korea, miso from Japan and kvass from Eastern Europe; all wonderfully prepared fermented foods that have maintained human intestinal health for centuries.
The bacteria residing in our digestive tract has now become a burgeoning area of study, with current research unveiling the huge role probiotics and prebiotics play in overall health. More than simply a means to optimal digestion, healthy bacteria in your gut means a healthier you. Eighty percent of our immune system is now said to reside in our gut. Good bacteria compete for space with any harmful microorganisms that you may be exposed to, which means that if you maintain healthy bacteria levels in your gut, it is possible to ward off most common illnesses.
More studies are revealing the tremendous role prebiotics play in mental health. Those common phrases, “Trust your gut” and “Gut instincts” are not far off from what science is now uncovering about how invariably linked our gut is to our brain. Intestinal health is now noted as a way to keep anxiety and depression at bay, in some studies showing similar efficacy to prescriptions for these disturbances. Your brain is in constant communication with your digestive tract—what do you think it is saying to you?